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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. In our previous session we argued that this is a critically important doctrine because if the Bible is not infallible, then our faith is, ultimately, based on subjectivism. We closed by quoting from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which says, in part, that “Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.” Dr. Spencer, what do you want to add to that?

Dr. Spencer: I mentioned last time that the authority and infallibility of the Bible are inextricably linked, and you see that point clearly in the sentence you just quoted from the Chicago Statement. Notice that they link a “recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness” of the Bible, in other words our believing that it is infallible, to “a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.” By adequate confession I think they mean one that is conducive to living a proper Christian life. I would like to begin therefore by more forcefully making the point that the authority and infallibility of the Bible are inextricably linked.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: If the Bible is infallible, then it logically follows that it is inerrant, simply meaning that it does not have errors in it.

Marc Roby: Now, when you say it does not contain any errors, I think it is important to note again that you’re talking about the autographs.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I am. Our copies can obviously contain printing errors, poor translations and even, in a few cases small errors caused by errors in the manuscripts we have available.

Marc Roby: But none of these small errors in any way affect any doctrine of biblical Christianity.

Dr. Spencer: No, they don’t, and that is an important point. In fact, with regard to these small errors, James Boice points out that “due to the extraordinary number and variety of the biblical manuscripts, there is no reason to doubt that today’s text is identical to the original text in all but a few places. And these few problem areas are clearly known to commentators.”[1] Which agrees with what we said last time regarding the number and quality of our existing manuscripts.

Marc Roby: OK, but I think we’ve gotten off topic just a bit. You said that if the Bible is infallible, then it logically follows that it is going to be inerrant. What were you going to say next?

Dr. Spencer: I was going to say that the only alternative to the Bible being inerrant is that it does, in fact, contain errors. And, if the Bible contained errors it would logically follow that not everything in it would have authority, because not everything in it would be from God, from whom all authority comes. That would leave us with the horrible problem of deciding for ourselves which parts of the Bible have authority and which don’t. And you can easily guess what would happen.

Marc Roby: I can think of a number of things.

Dr. Spencer: So can I, but let me give one concrete example to illustrate the seriousness of the problem. Suppose that a man named John was extremely unhappy in his marriage and was convinced that he had done everything possible on his end to work the problems out. Further suppose that his wife had not committed adultery, their problems were just relational. What do you think he would decide about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:32, where he says, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress”,[2] which implies that divorcing a wife for any reason other than adultery is sin. Do you think John would conclude that he can’t divorce his wife, or would he conclude that statement was some kind of error?

Marc Roby: I’m pretty sure he would conclude that Jesus didn’t really say that.

Dr. Spencer: I think you’re right. In other words, he might say that the Bible has authority to govern his life, but he would then completely eviscerate that authority by concluding that anything in the Bible that opposes his own view is an error.

Marc Roby: That would be the natural, sinful, human tendency.

Dr. Spencer: In other words, if the entire Bible was not the authoritative Word of God, then none of it would really have any authority because we would have to decide which parts have authority. And our natural, sinful tendency would be to say that the parts we agree with have authority, and the parts we don’t agree with do not have authority. In other words, I am the ultimate authority. We see this all the time when people argue that you can be a Christian and divorce your spouse for irreconcilable differences, or be a Christian homosexual, or any number of other examples we could name.

But, that is not biblical Christianity and, therefore, it is not a Christianity that will save you from hell. It is no better than any other man-made religion. If I am a true, born-again Christian, then I must accept the entire Word of God as his infallible, authoritative word.

Marc Roby: Are you saying that if someone doesn’t agree with this doctrine that they are not a true Christian?

Dr. Spencer: I don’t think I would go that far. But, I would argue that they do agree with it, even if they are not yet aware of that fact. When a person is first born again and exercises true saving faith, that faith is not mature, and you wouldn’t expect that they have had time and opportunity to think it all through carefully. And, if they don’t receive good sound teaching, it may take a while for them to do so. But, when we believe something to be true, that necessarily requires that we have determined there is sufficient reason to accept it as true. And the Bible is the only source of our knowledge that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. So, if a person has truly placed his trust in Jesus Christ and is saved, that means that he has judged the Bible to be trustworthy. And, if he thinks that through carefully, which is what we are trying to help people do now, he will realize that the only consistent position is to believe that the entire Bible is infallible.

Marc Roby: The theologian John Murray makes that point. He even goes so far as to say that one aspect of biblical faith is “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority of Scripture as the Word of God.”[3] And that this “is inseparable from a state of salvation.”[4]

Dr. Spencer: And I would agree. But I think that is an expression of a mature faith that has been thought through. So, if one of our listeners does not agree with this doctrine, it may be that he is truly saved, but has not yet thought this all through carefully. And, if that is the case, I hope and pray that our discussion of this material will result in his giving this topic careful consideration, because it is the clear teaching of the Bible itself that it is the infallible Word of God as we will demonstrate in later sessions. So, if I find myself disagreeing with it, on this doctrine or any other doctrine, I am the one who needs to change. The problem is with me, not the Bible.

Marc Roby: Of course, that presupposes that we understand the Bible correctly.

Dr. Spencer: Of course it does, and we will talk about that issue more later as well. But for now, I want to move on with making the case for the importance of the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. Let me begin by noting that the Westminster Confession of Faith recognized the central importance of the Word of God and that it receives its importance – and we could add its infallibility and authority – from the fact that God is its author.

In Chapter 1, Paragraph 4 of the confession we read that “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”[5] When they say it is to be “received”, I think they mean it is to be believed and obeyed. But, they were also indicating that they were simply receiving the revelation from God, not passing judgment on it as being correct.

Marc Roby: Which would, of course, again make man the ultimate authority, not God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. As we’ve discussed before, we must use our reason to recognize and understand the Word of God, but not to judge it. The theologian R.C. Sproul, in his Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith commented on the use of the word receive in this phrase in the confession and wrote that “When the early church settled on the books of the canon, it spoke of receiving these books as canonical. The church fathers were humbly recognizing the authority of these books, not presuming to give them authority, when they stated, ‘We receive these apostolic writings as the sacred Scriptures’ … The authority of Scripture does not depend on the testimony of any man or of the church; its authority depends and rests wholly on God, the supreme author of the Bible. Scripture should be received, not so that it can become the Word of God, be because it already is the Word of God.”[6]

Marc Roby: That is a very clear statement of the distinction between receiving the Word and judging the Word. I think it is also important to point out that the statement you read is in Chapter 1 of the confession of faith; so the Westminster Confession of faith begins with the Word of God.

Dr. Spencer: That is an important point. The confession begins with the Word of God because it is only in the Word of God that we learn what God wants us to believe and how we are to be saved.

Marc Roby: The Westminster Confession was also responding to the Roman Catholic church, which placed the traditions of the church on a par with Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. The Council of Trent was an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church and was called in response to the reformation, which most people mark as having begun with Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door on October 31, 1517. In the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church officially decreed that it “receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament … as also the said traditions”[7], which is referring to the traditions of the church. They go even further and declare that if anyone does not receive the traditions of the church as of equal value with the Bible itself, “let him be anathema.”[8]

Marc Roby: And to be anathema means to be cursed and excommunicated from the church, in other words, to be damned.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The Roman Catholic Church has never rescinded the decrees of that council, so if we do not accept the traditions of the church as of equal authority with Scripture, we are, according to the Roman Catholic Church, damned to hell. The problem with that view is that it is giving the church the power to declare something with the same authority as God himself. And the reformers were united in their condemnation of that view. This issue of the absolute and sole authority of the Scriptures has been called the formal cause of the reformation, and it is voiced in the famous Latin phrase sola Scriptura, which means Scripture alone.[9]

Marc Roby: But, the reformers did not simply throw away all the traditions of the church.

Dr. Spencer: No, they did not. In fact, the reformers embraced those traditions when they were consistent with the teachings of the Bible. R.C. Sproul, in his book What is Reformed Theology? Says that “the Reformers embraced the doctrines articulated and formulated by the great ecumenical councils of church history, including the doctrine of the Trinity and of Christ’s person and work formulated at the councils of Nicea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451.”[10] The reformers were returning to the Word of God as the supreme authority and were testing everything according to it.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of what we are told in Acts 17. Paul and Silas had been preaching about Christ in Berea and we are told, in Acts 17:11, that “the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great passage to make this point. The Bereans were commended by God himself for testing what the apostle Paul told them by looking in the Word of God. In Paul’s closing comments to the church in Thessalonica he wrote, in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, “do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” And, while he doesn’t say it here, it is clear that he would have them test everything by the Word of God, since that is what he labors to do in every one of his letters.

Marc Roby: And so, getting back to the Westminster Confession of Faith, they chose to begin by declaring that the Bible alone has absolute authority.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In addition to the passage we read earlier from Chapter 1 Paragraph 4, it might be worthwhile to give one more quote, which clearly shows that what you just said is true, the confession clearly does state that the Bible alone has absolute authority. Chapter 1 concludes with the following statement, in Paragraph 10; “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”[11] When the confession says “in whose sentence we are to rest”, it is using the word “sentence” in the sense of a judicial finding or judgment. In other words, we are to use the Bible as the ultimate authority in judging everything and we are to rest in its judgment.

Marc Roby: Well, I know that we have more to say on this topic, but this seems like a good place to stop for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear from you.

[1] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pp 75-76

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 241

[4] Ibid, pg. 254

[5] From http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html

[6] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, P&R Publishing Co., 2006, Vol. One, pg. 13

[7] From: The canons and decrees of the sacred and ecumenical Council of Trent, Trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), The Fourth Session, DECREE CONCERNING THE CANONICAL SCRIPTURES, pg. 18. Available in pdf form from file:///C:/Users/rrspe/Documents/Religion/Books%20&%20Papers/Council%20of%20Trent%20-%20decrees.pdf

[8] Ibid, pg. 19

[9] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 30

[10] Ibid, pp 28-29

[11] From http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by beginning to examine the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. Dr. Spencer, I suspect that this doctrine is unfamiliar to most of our listeners, why is this topic important?

Dr. Spencer: It is important because true Christianity stands or falls with the truthfulness of the Bible. By “true Christianity” I mean a Christianity that has the power to save a person from eternal hell and bring him into the very presence of God in eternal heaven. That’s why I often refer to “biblical Christianity”, by which I simply mean the true Christian religion as revealed by God, in distinction from all man-made variations and imposters. The bottom line is that, if the Bible is not completely and totally the very Word of God, and therefore completely infallible, our faith is built on the shifting sand of subjectivism and is bound to unravel one doctrine at a time, which is precisely what we see happening in the church today.

Marc Roby: That is a very strong statement and I look forward to seeing how you back it up. Where shall we begin?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin, as usual, by looking at the what the Bible itself says. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 the apostle Paul wrote that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”[1]

The Greek word translated as “God-breathed” by the NIV is θεόπνευστος, which literally means breathed out by God, which is how the English Standard Version renders it. The King James Version says that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God”, which is why you hear people say that the Bible is inspired by God.

Marc Roby: By which they don’t mean that God gave the person the idea or encouragement to write, which is what we usually do mean by the word inspire.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We can talk about some actor or musician giving an inspired performance, but that is an entirely different usage of the word. That’s why I don’t like to say the Scriptures are inspired by God, it is too easily misunderstood. The NIV and ESV translations are better here. The Greek says that all Scripture is breathed out by God. The idea is that the Bible, while written by human authors, is uniquely the very words of God himself. We discussed this in Session 27 when we examined the authority of the Bible, and the authority of the Bible is inextricably linked to its infallibility. But, the bottom line is that the Bible is completely infallible because God is infallible and he is the author of the Bible.

Marc Roby: It would be good to define precisely what you mean when you say that the Bible is infallible.

Dr. Spencer: The word infallible means not capable of being in error, so it is a stronger statement than saying the Bible is inerrant, which is, of course, also true. When I say that the Bible is infallible, I mean that because it is the very words of God, who himself is the perfect, all-knowing, sovereign creator of all things and who cannot lie, the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is incapable of being in error.

Marc Roby: These original manuscripts are called the autographs, but we don’t have them in our possession, so how can the doctrine of infallibility be important if it only applies to the autographs?

Dr. Spencer: As we noted back in Session 7, there is a science called textual criticism, which allows us to reconstruct what the autographs said based on the copies we have available. This science is used on other ancient documents as well. We covered this topic in some detail in Session 7, and I am only going to summarize the argument here. But it necessarily begins by examining the copies we have of the original documents, because if these were not complete, or if they were corrupted too badly, textual criticism would yield a very uncertain or incomplete result. In the case of the Bible however, we have very good and complete copies.

The Old Testament has been preserved almost perfectly through the millennia, which we know because the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in 1947, gave us copies of much of the Old Testament from before the time of Christ and they agree to an astonishing degree with the next oldest extant copy we have, which is from about 1000 AD. With regard to the New Testament, it is by leaps and bounds the best attested book from antiquity, bar none, as even non-Christian scholars will admit.

Marc Roby: Alright, so we have really good copies of the original documents. What then is this science of textual criticism?

Dr. Spencer: Let me repeat what I said in Session 7 about it because it is critically important to our present discussion. E.J. Young, in his book Thy Word is Truth, provides a marvelous example of how textual criticism can work.[2] He says to consider a schoolteacher who writes a letter to the President of the United States. To her great joy, she receives a personal reply. It is a treasure which she shares with her pupils by dictating the letter to them. And, after collecting the assignment, which gives her 30 imperfect copies of the letter, she loses the original. The question is, can she reconstruct it from the 30 imperfect copies? And the answer is, of course, yes. With a very high degree of certainty she can reconstruct the original letter. The different copies will contain spelling errors, missing or added words and so on, but these errors will be different in the different copies, so by comparing the 30 copies she can surely correct these errors and arrive at a very good copy of the original.

There is, of course, more to it, but that gives you a good idea. When this technique is applied to the Bible, we’re able to reconstruct with very high confidence what the autographs said. And, unlike most ancient documents, we don’t have to fill in holes where there is material missing. When you combine our many different manuscripts, we have reliable, complete copies of the entire Old and New Testaments.

Marc Roby: Alright, so we have very good copies, in the original languages, of the autographs. But, what about the translations that most of us read?

Dr. Spencer: Well, first let me note that the New Testament quotes from the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in use at the time of Christ, so clearly translations, in and of themselves, are not a problem. Also, as you would expect, some of them are better than others. Translation is never exact and it isn’t neutral either. The particular theological biases of the translator can significantly affect the final result. That is why we should read different translations to find out what the differences are and then also examine the theological biases of the translators. You should also look in good commentaries that go back to the original language and discuss the reasons for various choices made during the translation process.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a lot of work. How can a layperson, with limited time and knowledge, be sure that he or she is getting to the right answer?

Dr. Spencer: First of all, pray. Then you trust God to guide you. And, hopefully, if you have found a good church, led by pious and learned men, you can ask for their help. We use the 1984 New International Version, or NIV, Bible in our church, but it is no longer readily available and the newer versions of the NIV have been corrupted by liberal theology, so if you are looking to purchase a new English-language Bible, I would recommend the English Standard Version, or ESV. The New King James Version is also good. The old King James is still good too, but most modern readers find the English in it a bit difficult to understand.

Finally, it is very important to note that the basic message of salvation is so clearly taught in the Scriptures, that even a poor translation is sufficient to bring you to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. You may get some confusion on secondary points, but the basic message is there.

Marc Roby: And, if a person is born again, then he is guaranteed to have the Holy Spirit to guide him as he seeks to learn God’s truth more completely.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. If you have been born again, you are never truly alone in your search for God’s truth. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to put forth the effort and be careful, but God will guide you. And, if you are reading your Bible, God will also use that to help you recognize whether or not you are in a good church. We have a mutual friend who was saved and started attending a Jehovah’s Witness church – which is definitely not a true Christian church. But, he was reading the Bible and discovered for himself, guided by the Holy Spirit, that that church did not truly stand on the Word of God, so he left and found a good church.

Marc Roby: Alright, you’ve established that the Bible claims to be the very words of God, which makes it infallible, and you’ve argued that the copies we possess in our own language are extremely good representations of what the original documents said, so now let me get back to your opening statement. You said that if we give up on the infallibility of the Bible, our faith will unravel one doctrine at a time. Can you defend that statement?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. If the Bible had errors in it, how would we determine where they are? The only answer is that we would have to look to human reason and scholarship to see if what the Bible says is true. That may sound like a plausible approach, but if you think about it for a bit you can see that it is fatally flawed.

First of all, it means our ultimate standard for truth is human reason, but every rational person admits that human reason is fallible and human knowledge is limited, so our conclusions are necessarily conditional and subject to later revision.

Marc Roby: Can you give us an example of what you mean?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. Prior to the 1990’s many scholars taught that king David was a purely mythical character. But, as we noted in Session 19, the discovery of the Tell Dan Stele and other evidence now makes it clear that King David was a real person in history.

If we subject the Bible to our current understanding of history and science, our ultimate authority is really human reason, not the Word of God. And that is shifting sand. It really leaves us with subjectivism because we have to decide which parts of the Bible to believe and which not to believe. As I just noted, while it may sound reasonable to do that for historical issues, such as the question of whether or not Kind David was a real, historical figure, that really is not a solid foundation.

In addition, it is clearly not a reasonable approach when it comes to what the Bible tells us about God and how to be saved. On what basis are we going to decide which statements are true and which are not? If the Bible cannot be relied upon completely, we are left with our own subjective ideas about God and salvation.

Marc Roby: Perhaps another example would be useful.

Dr. Spencer: Consider the fundamental question of God’s nature. The Bible tells us that there is one God, but that he exists in three persons. On what basis, outside of the Bible, can someone say whether that teaching is true or not? There are many other doctrines that are similar. Where, besides the Bible, can we look to see whether an eternal heaven or hell exists? What about how we can escape the punishment of hell? These things are only revealed to us in the Bible. If it isn’t infallible, then we can’t possibly know that what it teaches us about these most important issues is right.

Marc Roby: I see your point.

Dr. Spencer: There is a lot of confusion in the modern church world because so many people have given up on the infallibility of the Bible. As a result, people question whether there really is an eternal heaven, or an eternal hell, or whether Jesus Christ truly rose from the dead, or even whether or not Jesus Christ is truly God, or was born of a virgin.

Let’s examine just one common example. Many people who claim to be Bible believing Christians will say that they don’t believe in eternal hell. And the argument they give will virtually always be something like this; God is love and it wouldn’t be loving for God to punish people for all eternity, so I can’t believe that God would do that.

Marc Roby: I’ve heard similar arguments.

Dr. Spencer: Even if the argument is far more sophisticated than I’ve made it sound, it still boils down to human theorizing about what God would or would not do. But, if we believe the Bible to truly be God’s infallible Word, then the question can only be answered by looking at the Bible; and when you do that, the answer is quite clear.

The infallibility of the Bible is of central importance because it establishes the only firm foundation for our faith. Once we have come to the realization that Word of God is infallible, then all speculation and human philosophizing go away and the only question we need to ask on any issue we are interested in, is “What does the Word of God say?”

Marc Roby: And hence the title and subject of this podcast.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. But, I really want to emphasize how important this issue is and establish clearly in our listener’s minds that, if they are Christians, the Word of God is not only their absolute authority, it is also infallible. The book I quoted from earlier, Thy Word is Truth, by the great Old Testament scholar E.J. Young, was written precisely because he saw this issue as central to our faith.

Marc Roby: And that book was written in 1957!

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely, and the problem is much worse now. Young states his purpose in writing the book clearly on page 7; he wrote that his purpose was “To acquaint the intelligent layman with the Biblical doctrine of inspiration and to convince him of its importance”.[3] I’m going to be using his book quite a bit in our discussion on this topic and I highly recommend it to our listeners, it’s still readily available in print from many sources.

Marc Roby: The debate over this topic also led, in 1978, to a large number of biblical scholars producing the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, and I think the opening paragraph of that statement would be good to read. It says, “The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian Church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God’s written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.”[4]

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful statement, and a good place to end for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] E.J. Young, Thy Word is Truth, the Banner of Truth Trust, 2012, pg. 57

[3] Ibid, pg. 7

[4] Available from http://defendinginerrancy.com/chicago-statements/ and also from http://www.alliancenet.org/the-chicago-statement-on-biblical-inerrancy

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine delegated authority in the church. Dr. Spencer, we finished last time with the topic of church discipline and made the case that, while unpleasant, it is a necessary function of a true church and it is for the benefit of God’s people. But, you said we still need to discuss the limits and abuses of church authority. What do you want to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: I think it is very important to establish that authority in the church is not absolute. We already noted that is true of authority in the family and the state as well, but it is important to make this point clear. The Word of God is the only absolute authority for a Christian. We owe absolute unquestioning obedience to the Word of God, but we do not owe absolute unquestioning obedience to any delegated authority; not in the home, the state or the church. If any of these authorities tell us to sin, we must respectfully decline.

Marc Roby: And yet, we established last time that the elders in the church do have authority to interpret and apply the Word of God to the people who are under them, so how does this work in practice?

Dr. Spencer: In practice we must be very careful. The elders do have the responsibility and authority to interpret and apply the Word of God, but each Christian also has a personal responsibility to know what the Word of God says so that we won’t follow heretical teaching or commands. We are commanded by Hebrews 13:17 to obey our leaders in the church and submit to their authority, but that command is null and void if they tell us to sin, as we learn from Acts 5:29.

Marc Roby: Now, telling us to sin is a fairly obvious extreme case, but what if they command something that the Bible does not give them warrant to command?

Dr. Spencer: We are treading on thin ice here, and I want to proceed very very carefully. By far the biggest danger is to undermine proper church authority. There are many things that are not in the Bible that are, nevertheless, within the scope of the proper use of delegated authority.

Marc Roby: Can you give me an example?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. Let me start with a few trivial ones. Just as a father clearly has the authority to decide what time his children need to go to bed, similarly, church leaders have authority to set the times for church meetings. They also have authority to decide a myriad of other things relating to the day-to-day operation of the church, although none of these are mentioned in the Bible.

Marc Roby: What about more important matters?

Dr. Spencer: We must distinguish here between commands and counsel. People in a church may get counsel on any number of issues and should, in general, obey that counsel. But counsel is not a command and it is not necessarily a sin to disregard it. The distinction between counsel and command is very important because church discipline shouldn’t be brought against people who don’t follow counsel. But, counsel is also not usually directive in specifics, it more often takes the form of helping the person properly frame the issues that should be considered in order to make a wise decision that is consistent with biblical values and commands.

With that said however, I certainly can imagine situations where a leader could overstep his proper authority. For example, if a leader actually commanded a member of his congregation to marry a particular person, or purchase a particular car, or give a large sum of money to the church, I would say he has no biblical authority to issue such a command even though none of those actions is, in itself, sinful.

Marc Roby: How would you define what commands are outside of the authority of an elder?

Dr. Spencer: That is a difficult question to answer. It makes me think of the old line from a judge ruling on a pornography case, when he said, “It’s hard to define what pornography is, but you know it when you see it.” Perhaps one way to get at this would be to say the elder should be able to give you a good biblical rationale for his command; if he can’t do that, then his command is inappropriate even if what he said may be good counsel.

Marc Roby: It’s easy to see how this can get complicated.

Dr. Spencer: It can in theory, but I think it is not so difficult in practice. If an elder were to give you a command that seemed inappropriate, you should take it to the council of elders. I find it very hard to believe that a group of godly men will approve an obviously inappropriate command. This is why Christians need to be very careful to find and join a good church in the first place. Cults are generally obvious and you can avoid them by being in God’s Word, filled with His Spirit and prayerfully seeking to know and do his will.

If you are in a good church that truly has the Bible as its ultimate authority, then all problems – whether between individual members or between a member and elder – can be dealt with by following biblical procedures. The church is like a family. Authority is to be used for the good of those who are under that authority. And the authority is to be used in love and obeyed in love. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul presents us with a great metaphor for the church as the body of Christ.

Marc Roby: And we are all to function as a part of the body of Christ, not as completely independent individuals.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. That is a key issue. Just as a husband and wife should never think of themselves apart from their union, so members of a church should never think of themselves apart from their local body of believers. The modern church takes the issue of membership way too lightly.

Marc Roby: In fact, many modern churches don’t even have membership, they just have regular attendees.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and it is completely unbiblical and wrong. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul points out that a body needs eyes, ears, feet and hands. In Verse 27 he says “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” [1] And he talks about the different gifts God has given to people in the church. Earlier in that chapter he was making the point that all gifts come from the Spirit of God and, in Verse 7 he wrote that “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

The point is that we are to view ourselves as part of something greater, which is the body of Christ. Now the body of Christ has many different local congregations, but in each one the people are to view themselves as essential parts of that body and are to use their gifts, whatever they may be, for the common good. We need each other and we need to be involved in each other’s lives. In Verse 26 of that chapter Paul says that “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” We are not simply individuals who come together on Sunday to worship God. We are part of the body of Christ, working together to build each other up, to honor God and to be his witnesses here on earth. So, church membership is very important and should be taken very seriously.

Marc Roby: It is interesting to note that if we look at churches 150 years ago, most of them had membership covenants and the elders carefully examined people who wanted to become members.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And if you had to move from one place to another and it was too far away to keep attending the same church, your home church stayed in contact with you and exercised spiritual oversight until you found a new church and transferred your membership.

Marc Roby: And the new church would ask for a letter of transfer from your previous church indicating that you are a member in good standing.

Dr. Spencer: Yes they would. This all sounds very intrusive and over-the-top to most people today, especially people in the western world, even if they profess to be Christians. But the reality is that this kind of serious accountability is extremely beneficial. I need help to maintain a serious walk with God. I should be grateful for others taking enough interest in me to help me by confronting me if my life gets out of line in some way. That kind of help is simply a manifestation of love, not an abuse of authority.

Marc Roby: Similar to the love parents show for their children when they carefully monitor their activities, friends and so on.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We wouldn’t want to push that analogy too far obviously, since we are talking about adults. But the Bible makes it clear that we never outgrow our need for pastoral care and counseling. Accountability is not just good, but essential to proper Christian living.

Marc Roby: Perhaps a concrete example would be good.

Dr. Spencer: Alright. Suppose my elder knows that I don’t make a lot of money, so just paying my rent, putting food on the table and clothing my family takes most of what I earn. Which, by the way, is something my elder should know. And then he sees me driving a very expensive new car. If he loves me, he should be, quite reasonably, concerned. And it would be perfectly reasonable of him to ask how much the car cost and how I’m paying for it.

Now, if I’ve received an inheritance that he didn’t know about or something else had changed my financial situation, then perhaps he should let it drop. But, if I have put myself in debt and made an already difficult financial situation much worse, it would be appropriate for him to rebuke me and point out that the purchase was not at all wise stewardship of the resources God has given to me, nor was it wise leadership in my family, and the Bible says that we should not be in debt.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that suggestion is not going to sit well with most modern Christians.

Dr. Spencer: No it isn’t, because we live in a time and place where personal autonomy is prized above almost everything else. And I’m not suggesting that serious church discipline would be brought against me in such a situation, but it is true love to help me see that I made a selfish, unwise and ungodly decision that was not in the best interests of my family. My elder would definitely not be abusing his authority by speaking to me.

Marc Roby: Alright, we have established that spiritual oversight is a good thing, not an abuse of authority, and that churches, and their members, should take church membership seriously. What else needs to be said?

Dr. Spencer: I think we should repeat and emphasize something we briefly mentioned last time. The most common abuse of authority in the church, by far, is in not exercising any authority. It is the “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality that many churches have. This is done in the name of personal Christian freedom of course. But the reality is, that while it makes life much easier for the leaders of the church, that comes at the terrible expense of the people in the church, who are not given the help they need to walk in holiness with God.

In the example I gave a moment ago about an elder confronting me over purchasing a car I can’t afford, it would be an abuse of authority for him to not say something. It would be like a parent seeing their child doing something potentially dangerous and not caring enough to do something about it. We have laws that protect our children from that kind of negligence.

Marc Roby: And we should point out that real harm results when people don’t strive for personal holiness.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. Returning to our example again, if I am living in debt, I am not honoring and obeying God, so he is not going to bless me and my family. And that may manifest in different ways, but as one example, if a couple is in debt, that is frequently a source of serious friction. Such friction then causes problems in the marriage. And, even if there aren’t open fights between the husband and the wife, the children pick up on all the small signals of discord, so the children are adversely affected as well. If the church steps in and helps this couple deal with the problem, their entire family benefits. That isn’t abuse, that’s love.

Marc Roby: And, of course, there are also interpersonal problems not just in families, but also in the church at large, which can be between members, or an individual member and an elder, and these often lead to people leaving a church, or even, in extreme cases, to splits in a church.

Dr. Spencer: That is a common problem. If I get offended by someone in church, don’t deal with it, and let that problem fester and grow, I am harming the whole body. If I then leave the church because of this issue, rather than dealing with it biblically, I am sinning against that church and hurting every other member of that local body.

That is also why I need to be exceedingly careful if I think a delegated authority in the church has overstepped his bounds in some way. I can’t simply get up and walk out, I need to deal with the problem biblically. An analogy to marriage is appropriate. Our society says that you can dissolve a marriage for virtually any reason, usually stated as “irreconcilable differences”. But, if we are talking about born-again people, there are no irreconcilable differences; every problem can be dealt with in Christ, not only in a marriage, but in the church. If we all lived that way, we would do away with an awful lot of people moving from one church to another, and churches splitting, all of which is a disgrace to Jesus Christ our Lord.

Marc Roby: But, of course, there are rare situations where it would be appropriate to leave a church.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly are, but I wanted to go through the importance of personal commitment to the local church and to working out problems that arise biblically first. And I want to emphasize that situations where it would be appropriate to leave a church are extremely rare. So, in the first place a Christian has to be very serious about picking a church to join—it must be a church that displays the three marks of a proper church—the preaching of the word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the biblical exercise of discipline. The leadership of such a church will be committed to the Bible as the ultimate authority, and every problem that arises can be dealt with in a God-honoring way. Then, even if one elder should go bad in some way, the others will step in and take care of it.

But, with that said, let me give one concrete example of a so-called church that you should absolutely get away from. Some of our listeners may remember Jim Jones. He was the founder of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ in Indiana in 1955. At one point he is reported to have thrown his Bible on the floor and yelled at the people, “Too many people are looking at this instead of looking at me!”[2]

Let me tell you plainly, at that point, if not well before, the people should have gotten up and walked out; in fact, they should have run out. That was not a true church, it was a synagogue of Satan. And it did not end well, it ended with a mass murder and suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978.

Marc Roby: I suppose David Koresh would be another extreme example.

Dr. Spencer: Of course. He died, along with 79 others, at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas in 1993 when the buildings caught fire as the FBI was moving in on them. I don’t want to waste much time with his story, but his original name was not David Koresh. He had it legally changed in 1990.[3] He chose Koresh because that is the biblical name of King Cyrus, whom we mentioned in Session 20 was the only non-Jew ever said to be called “Yahweh’s anointed” in the Bible.[4] Suffice it to say that anytime someone has these kinds of delusions of grandeur and uses his position to glorify himself and obtain sexual favors as Koresh did, or any other kind of personal gain, that person is not a God-called minister of the gospel and you should run away.

Marc Roby: Jones and Koresh are both, as you noted, extreme examples. What about more common situations?

Dr. Spencer: Well, there are many churches out there that are false, and you should certainly leave if the church steadfastly refuses to preach and practice the true gospel. If, however, you belong to a church that does preach the Bible as the ultimate authority you should take your commitment very seriously. If you think there is a problem in the church, you need to deal with it biblically as we discussed earlier.

Marc Roby: OK, but what if the elders do not respond biblically?

Dr. Spencer: If you think the elders themselves are in some way violating Scripture, you have a duty to tell them and be very specific. If they disagree with you, you should listen to what they say very carefully and pray seriously about the issue, I would say with fasting – and remember that we all have deceitful hearts as we are told in Jeremiah 17:9.

If however, after serious prayer and consideration, you are certain that the church is simply unbiblical and unwilling to reform, then you would be duty-bound to leave. But, and I cannot possibly emphasize this point enough, you will be held accountable by God on the Day of Judgement for that decision. And if you leave without proper warrant, that is a sin against God and his church. So, you had better be absolutely certain that you are right. Churches certainly can and do go bad, there are examples of that, but it takes time, and it usually follows a change in leadership.

Marc Roby: Alright. So, as individual members of a church, all Christians are, ultimately, personally responsible before God. And, therefore, we have a responsibility to know the Word of God so that we can detect unbiblical teaching or practice.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. If you believe heresy, it is not going to help you on the last day to tell God that you were just believing what some so-called minister was telling you. You have God’s Word, so you have no excuse. But, this is an extremely serious issue. We are all prone to self-deception and self-justification, and we need to be exceedingly careful. You can’t leave a church because the elders didn’t agree to show some movie you thought would be good, or because the youth group doesn’t provide some opportunity you think your children should have, or because the pastor said something you thought was a bit too harsh from the pulpit, or any of a myriad of other reasons people convince themselves are serious issues.

Marc Roby: As you said, church membership is a little bit like marriage, you are making a serious commitment that you may not unilaterally break for just any reason.

Dr. Spencer: That’s absolutely right. God values unity in his church very highly. And he has given us his way of dealing with the problems that are guaranteed to come up. But, unity cannot be purchased at the expense of holiness, so the church must also exercise discipline, which we have noted is for the good of the members as well as the honor of Christ. As members of a church, we need to come under and support the church’s discipline. And, in the extremely rare situation where delegated authority is truly abused, we need to work hard to solve the problem biblically. Only if and when we are completely convinced that the church is operating unbiblically and is unwilling to change are we free to leave; and we will be held accountable by God for that decision, so we had better be very certain we are right.

Marc Roby: I think we have we are finished with this topic, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] See https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jim_Jones

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh

[4] Lisbeth S. Fried, Cyrus the Messiah, Bible Review 19:5, October 2003

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to look at delegated authority in the church and, more specifically, with the unpleasant and difficult topic of church discipline. Dr. Spencer, we closed last time by mentioning the passage in Matthew 18:15-20. Let me read Verses 15-17 from that passage to begin our discussion. This entire passage is spoken by Christ. He said, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: There are a couple of very important principles that we learn from this passage. First, notice that my first response to a brother sinning against me is to talk to him by myself. There is no need to involve others if the issue is just between the two of us. If he responds favorably, repents and asks forgiveness, then the issue is over and there is no need to do anything more.

But, if he does not respond, I have no freedom to just drop the matter. I should now involve others, it isn’t stated, but elders would probably be the best choice here, and then I go see him again. If there is still no favorable response, then it is time to take the matter to the church. Now, that does not mean that I make some kind of public announcement or that I go around behind the person’s back telling everyone what he did. But, it does mean that the authority to adjudicate the matter is invested in the church as a whole. The elders however, are to function as representatives of the church as John Murray argues in Chapter 27 of Volume Two of his Collected Works, which is on The Government of the Church. He writes, “The church in this case need not be the whole congregation. According to the Old Testament pattern the whole congregation is represented as present and acting when the elders act on its behalf.”[2]

Marc Roby: Of course, having the elders deal with an issue also keeps matters confidential as far as possible, which goes along with the principle represented in the beginning of the passage, that I should deal with my brother by myself if possible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Even if the elders have to get involved, it is usually best to keep sin as private as possible. But, to get back to the authority of the church, notice that at the end of this passage Christ said that if the person who has sinned “refuses to listen even to the church”, then you are to “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”; in other words, you are to put him out of fellowship with the church body.

Marc Roby: We have an example of that kind of authority being used in the Corinthian church.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul wrote to the congregation about a man who was committing serious sexual immorality and, in Verses 4 and 5 he told them, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (ESV)

Marc Roby: The destruction of the flesh does not sound pleasant.

Dr. Spencer: No, but the purpose of excommunication is very good indeed. It is “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” That is always the hope when church discipline is brought against someone. Our hope and prayer is not that the person will experience trouble, but that the trouble they experience will drive them to repentance and restoration.

Marc Roby: And, in this particular example, that is what happened, as we learn in 2 Corinthians.

Dr. Spencer: True, but we can’t know for sure that it will happen. And, whether it does or not, the church is called by God to exercise discipline. Which, returning to the topic at hand, is a clear manifestation of the authority delegated to the church. In our day and age people don’t think much of church discipline, but it is far more serious than the power of the sword wielded by the state.

Marc Roby: Now wait a minute. The state has the power, ultimately, to put somebody to death. And you’re saying that the church’s power is greater?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus said “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” When the church properly exercises the authority given to it, the judgments rendered by the church mirror those rendered in heaven. Let’s go back to Matthew 18 and read the rest of the passage. You read Verses 15-17 before, but in 18-20 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Jesus is clearly speaking here about judgments made by an assembly of Christians, and to say that they are gathered in his name and he is present implies that they are acting in accord with his Word. The issue of binding and loosing is very serious. John Murray explains that this passage in Matthew 18 must be connected with John 20:23, where the resurrected Christ told his disciples “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” With respect to this verse Murray wrote that “No exercise of the power of the keys, no act of binding and loosing in terms of Matt. 16:18, 19, could be more basic or representative than the remission or non-remission of sins.”[3]

Marc Roby: I think we need to explain that a little bit more. Murray is certainly not saying that the church can refuse forgiveness to someone.

Dr. Spencer: That depends. If the person has repented and asked for forgiveness, then of course we are commanded to forgive. But, if the church has confronted someone with terrible sin, as the church in Corinth did, and has properly exercised church discipline in excommunicating that person, then that person’s sins are not forgiven unless and until such time as the person is brought to real repentance. And if that does not happen, then that person will go to hell in the final judgment.

So, let me be completely clear that the elders in a given church absolutely do not have the power to send someone to hell, or to save someone. That power belongs to God alone. But, when the elders in the church properly exercise church discipline, they are implementing on earth the sentence already carried out in heaven. And that is a very serious matter indeed. In fact, the Greek construction in Matthew 18:18, rather than saying “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” as our NIV renders it, would more accurately be translated by saying “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, the actions of the church are simply representative of what God has already done.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to mention an example or two. What kinds of things come up that require church discipline?

Dr. Spencer: Well, any true church is a mixture of people who are truly born again and people who are not. And even born-again people are still sinners, so just about everything you can think of shows up in the church. But, one of the most common things to occur is sexual sin, which is often mixed with other sins. Let me give a concrete example.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: This example is based on real experience, although I’m mixing details from a few different events so that no one person or situation can be identified. Our town, like many college towns, has some restaurants in town that have bars associated with them and they have in the past had trivia game nights. Now, if a group of young men and woman get together and go have some nachos, and maybe a glass of beer or wine and play trivia for an hour, that is certainly not a sin. But suppose that one of the young men starts to have a few more beers, and maybe something stronger, and ends up getting drunk and then even leaving the bar with different young women he meets there. Further suppose that one or more of his friends confronts him with this sin, but he tells them it’s no big deal, he isn’t really getting drunk and it isn’t any of their business what he does with the young women they have seen him with.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a serious problem. I suppose the friends would then need to bring this up with the elders.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what should happen. Most modern churches however, operate with a sort of unstated “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. They don’t want to know about this kind of behavior because then they might feel obligated to do something, and they don’t have the structure or the fortitude to deal with it properly. What ought to happen though, is that the elders should come to that young man – I’m assuming here that he is a member of the church – and tell him that his life is out of order and he needs to change. If he then refuses even when the leaders explain why his behavior is a disgrace to Christ and his church, he must be disciplined. Ultimately, by being excommunicated from the church.

Marc Roby: Which means, as Paul wrote, that he has been handed over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh”.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what it means. And, as we noted before, the hope is that he will find himself miserable and will be brought to repentance and be fully restored to fellowship and to walking with God. Just look at Psalm 51, where King David pours out his soul after being confronted by the prophet Nathan and convicted of his sin in committing adultery and murder. True godly repentance is a wonderful thing, and brings real restoration with God and with his people. Unfortunately, there are so many false churches in this day and age, that church discipline is often undermined. Going back to the example of the young man I just mentioned, if he can go down the street, start attending a different church and be welcomed with open arms, then the discipline is not as effective as it should be.

Marc Roby: In a situation like that it is nice to know that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted.

Dr. Spencer: I couldn’t agree more. If God wants to bring that young man to repentance, he will. But, there is still real harm that results. The young man may suffer more than would otherwise have been necessary, and other people’s lives may be adversely affected as well. When the church doesn’t function the way God has commanded it to function, there is a price to pay. Sin always has consequences.

Marc Roby: And there is always the temptation for church leaders to take the easy road.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly is. The proper use of authority takes hard work and it leads to unpleasant circumstances. For example, the parents of the young man in the example we just gave may become very unhappy with the church too, thinking that the discipline was too harsh in some way. So, now you have another problem to deal with. And these people may go and bad-mouth the church to others, causing even more harm. These things have a way of snowballing. And church leaders can avoid many of these headaches by simply not exercising any real authority or discipline.

Marc Roby: But, they will still have to give an answer to God.

Dr. Spencer: They cannot escape that. But, in the meantime, the church will suffer. When authority is not exercised, that is an abuse every bit as real as when someone misuses authority, and frankly, failure to exercise biblical authority is much more common. But, unfortunately, people don’t really see it that way, so the temptation to not exercise authority is very strong.

Marc Roby: And recently that temptation caught up with a well-known evangelical leader.

Dr. Spencer: I’m very sorry to have to say that it did. In our last podcast we quoted, approvingly, from John MacArthur’s commentary on Hebrews 13:17. He did a good job of explaining the delegated authority given to pastors in the church. He wrote that commentary in 1983. But, regrettably, some recent teaching of his on the subject is the exact opposite. On August 29, 2017, the publishing arm of his ministry, Grace to You, published a YouTube video[4] of him answering the question, “How much authority does a pastor have in the lives of his congregants?” His answer is extremely disappointing, and dangerous.

He answered, and I quote, “None. No authority. I have no authority in this church, personally. My experience doesn’t give me any authority. My knowledge doesn’t give me any authority. My education doesn’t give me any authority. I have no authority. My position doesn’t give me any authority. My title doesn’t give me any authority. That’s why I don’t like titles. Only the Word of God has authority.”

Marc Roby: Now, that is an amazing statement. He says the Word of God has authority, but he completely undercuts that authority by then contradicting what the Word says about the delegated authority of church leaders, such as himself.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. His answer is contradictory. If the Word of God has authority, then it has authority to say that he, as the senior pastor in his church, has authority. I also think it is sad that he is sending out this video precisely because he has a position of authority. So, paradoxically, he is making an authoritative statement that he has no authority.

But, I don’t want to make light of this in any way because it is a seriously dangerous teaching and it absolutely contradicts the Word of God and the bulk of John MacArthur’s own teaching on the Word of God. If this teaching is followed by people, it can bring great harm to God’s church by causing people to despise perfectly proper church discipline. I won’t speculate on why he has changed his tune, but this is an example of just how strong the temptation can be to compromise on the Word of God. And it shows how thankful people should be if they are in a church where their leaders stand firmly on the Word of God and use their authority properly.

Marc Roby: I think it is important to note that you did try to bring this issue up with MacArthur before we decided to say anything about it on the podcast.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I did. I wanted to follow the procedure we have seen from Matthew 18. So, I wrote a letter to John MacArthur, and sent it by registered mail with return receipt requested so that I would know for sure he got it and so that it might come to him with a flag indicating it was more important than just everyday correspondence.

Marc Roby: And did he respond to that letter?

Dr. Spencer: Not in any way. I also sent a letter to Phil Johnson, who is the executive director of Grace to You, and I sent a second letter to MacArthur himself. I have not received any response from either of them. It is interesting to note however, that if you go to the website for MacArthur’s church, under the headings “About/Distinctives/What we Teach/The Church”, you find the following statement: “We teach that these leaders lead or rule as servants of Christ (1 Timothy 5:17-22) and have His authority in directing the church. The congregation is to submit to their leadership (Hebrews 13:7, 17).”[5] So, at least on paper his church still supports the authority of church leaders, even though he completely denounces that authority in his most recent public teaching.

Marc Roby: We can only hope that people will pay more attention to his statement that the Word of God has authority and will reject his statements that contradict the Word of God. Do you have anything more to say on this topic for now?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. We noted in Session 30 that it should be extremely rare for a husband to overrule a wife, and the same thing can be said about church authority. Although any real Christian is corrected and challenged by the Word of God and their leaders on a regular basis, it should be extremely rare for the leaders of the church to have to bring a serious word of correction or rebuke. I would say that the majority of the time that leaders have to deal with serious problems in the church it is because the people aren’t truly born again. So, if you are a born-again Christian, you have a desire to know and do the will of God, and even though you may initially be bothered by something a leader says to you, when you go home and pray about it and look into it, you should find yourself in agreement. I’m assuming, of course, that the leader is properly interpreting and applying the Word of God.

Marc Roby: That leads nicely into a question I would like to ask you. We have argued that the authority of church leaders includes the authority to interpret and apply the Word of God, so what is the responsibility of an individual member of the church in that regard?

Dr. Spencer: We each have a very serious responsibility. We are to know the Word of God so that we can recognize when someone is teaching heresy. That is why all true God-called ministers of the gospel will tell their congregations, as our Pastor does, to read and study the Word of God seriously and to know it for themselves. And they will stick to those things that are clear in the Word when it comes to personal counsel.

Marc Roby: I have one more question I’d like to ask. Why is church discipline so important for the health of the church?

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very important question. We’ve already mentioned that discipline is always meant to be redemptive, that is to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner. But, in addition, it protects God’s glory. The church is to represent God to the world and when the church has open sin in it, it is a disgrace to Christ our Lord, the head of the church. It also impacts the church’s witness. As just one example, when the divorce rate in the church is about the same as the rest of society, as is true in most evangelical churches today, what kind of witness is that? Why would anyone be interested in such a powerless Christianity as that? Also, when sin is not dealt with it tends to fester and grow and infect other members of the church. Sin is never stagnant.

Marc Roby: Well, are we finished with this topic?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. We need to discuss the limits and abuses of delegated authority in the church.

Marc Roby: Very well, but we’re out of time for today, so we’ll have to take this up in our next session. I’d like to remind our listeners to send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 339

[3] Ibid, pg 338

[4] Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X65vspiZLLA&feature=youtu.be

[5] https://www.gracechurch.org/about/distinctives/what-we-teach

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